There has been a growing shift away from tradition when it comes to the institution of marriage.
Millenials are waiting longer to get married, and divorce rates have been declining since the 1990s. Those two trends, some sociologists have suggested, could be linked.
And there’s one clear trend that’s easy to spot among 20-somethings and early 30-somethings waiting longer to tie the knot: They’re moving in with their significant others before deciding whether or not to get engaged.
Studies of cohabitation and marriage trends have shown a significant uptick in the number of couples who live together before marriage. While this may sound obvious, looking back at marriage statistics from just 60 years ago reveals how stark of a change this is.
According to data analyzed by sociologist Wendy Manning at the National Center for Family and Marriage Research (NCFMR), only “11% of women who first married between 1965 and 1974 cohabited prior to marriage.” By 2005-2009, 66% of women were shacking up before marriage: a sixfold increase from their parents’ generation.
Today, multiple studies on relationships and behavior point to cohabitation as the defacto “first union for young adults.” In a study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family, Manning noted that living together “has become part of the pathway towards marriage.”
As shacking up has become the norm, other aspects of traditional engagements and marriages are shifting at the same time, perhaps in response. For example, “honeyfunds” have taken off as a popular wedding gift option. Millenials are now more likely to ask for cash on their wedding day, instead of a toaster or gravy boat.
Why? Because couples who already live together have built a collection of necessary kitchen equipment or bed linens. Gone are the days when getting a spouse also means having a new empty house that needs filling.
“When people have lived on their own for years, it is hard to register when they marry,” sociologist Arielle Kuperberg explained to the New York Times. “This generation of couples also cohabitate in great numbers, entertain casually, marry later.”
Corinne Reczek, now an assistant professor of sociology at Ohio State University, once described cohabitation as a “trial marriage” of sorts. Living together could theoretically increase the odds that mismatched couples with no long-term compatability will break up before tying the knot, thus gently decreasing the divorce rate.
Sociologists have recently begun re-examining the potential links between cohabitation and divorce or separation. Early studies actually concluded living together increased a couples’ risk for divorce, but Kuperberg and others have worked to show how these initial conclusions may have been based on a misinterpretation of the data.
In a 2014 study, Kuperberg noted that “the previously found association between premarital cohabitation and divorce in earlier decades can in part be attributed to the age at which premarital cohabitors began coresiding.” In short, couples who moved in together at a younger age were more likely to divorce later. That suggests at least part of the previously observed effect might have to do with the age of commitment, not simply the act of living together.
Historian Stephanie Coontz went a step further, in a response to Kuperberg’s findings. She pointed to an Australian study that found that while cohabitation was once associated with higher divorce rates, that’s not just neutralized since around 1988 but actually reversed completely: “For more recent marriages,” those researchers concluded, “premarital cohabitation reduces the risk of separation.”
The US, Coontz suggested, may well follow the pattern found in Australia.
There’s actually already some evidence of these more lasting marriages among the cohabitating generation, so millenials seem to have something figured out — though it’s impossible to pinpoint cohabitation as the cause. (It’s probably many things.) As an analysis by The Upshot at The New York Times showed, people who got married in the 2000s are so far divorcing at a lower rate than those married in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s.
While we can only guess the exact reason for this downward trend throughout decades when so many attitudes about marriage and relationships have changed, sociologists are examining the skyrocketing rates of premarital cohabitation as one possible contributing factor.
Kuperberg has estimated that in just 50 years, there has been a 900% increase in the percentage of couples who live together before getting married, marking an enormous change in societal norms. Is it possible this is an antidote for bad marriages?
We’ll have to wait and see.
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